Many of us struggle to part with treasured belongings, but for years Stephanie Evans felt compelled to hang on to just about everything she’d ever bought.
As a result her hallway and living room were crammed with towering stacks of books and magazines. Her bedroom, meanwhile, was so full of piles of clothes that, until recently, she had to sleep on the sofa in the living room.
‘I hated the way the clutter made me feel but I just couldn’t throw anything away —even if something broke I couldn’t part with it,’ says Stephanie, 51, a teaching assistant from Birmingham.
‘I just told myself I needed more shelves and storage space and that one day I would sort it all out. Family would sometimes help me clear it, but I would fill the space again and this left me feeling even more of a failure.’
Stephanie, who is divorced, has a daughter aged 28, and only close family and friends had any idea of her problem as she ensured she always looked immaculate when she left for work.
‘When I stepped outside the front door, no one would have guessed that I was living in such chaos,’ she says. ‘It was like I was leading a double life. But I dreaded having to go back to the flat at the end of the day.’
Stephanie suffers from hoarding disorder, thought to affect an estimated 3.4 million people in the UK to some degree.
But, like many, she didn’t think it was something doctors would treat, so she didn’t seek help.
In fact, hoarding is a recognized medical disorder — previously classed as a type of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), where people repeat certain behaviors or thoughts. But last month hoarding was recognized as a psychiatric disorder in its own right by the World Health Organisation.
Hoarding disorder is defined as having an excessive number of items, having persistent difficulty throwing possessions away and storing them in a chaotic manner, to such an extent that this interferes with everyday living and causes significant distress or affects quality of life.
Those affected will collect anything, such as clothes, newspapers, photos, even printouts of emails, till receipts and grass cuttings, says Dr Stuart Whomsley, an NHS clinical psychologist who practises in Corby, Northamptonshire.
While some hang on to pretty much everything they have, others collect specific items. ‘Hoarders fear making the wrong decision about what to keep and what to throw out, so they keep everything,’ says Dr Whomsley.
‘It is a psychological condition and not a lifestyle choice,’ he adds. ‘It can be associated with other mental health conditions such as depression and social anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or OCD.’
Hoarders may also have perfectionist tendencies, be prone to procrastination and have problems planning and organizing.
‘Many of those affected will have had hoarding tendencies since childhood but living with their parents or a partner meant that it wasn’t allowed to get out of hand,’ says Dr Whomsley.
‘The most common time for it to come to a head is when people are middle-aged or older and living alone.’ The condition is often triggered by a traumatic event such as a bereavement or divorce.
‘One theory is that having experienced loss in the past, a person is primed to resist any further losses, hence their reluctance to part with things,’ adds Dr Whomsley. Hoarding can have far-reaching effects on a person’s life. Heather Matuozzo, who runs the Clouds End hoarders support group in Solihull, West Midlands, says people can lose their children and their homes due to hoarding.
‘It can be very serious and yet people with this condition don’t get much sympathy as it is seen as self-inflicted rather than an illness. Hopefully, that will now change.’
Treatment options include a mix of phased decluttering and psychological therapies, including individual and group cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a talking therapy to encourage people to think about their reactions to everyday events differently.
Clearing out someone’s cluttered house is rarely effective on its own, says Dr Whomsley.
‘That won’t solve the problem because they will just fill it up again, and there’s nearly always an underlying psychological cause that needs addressing,’ he says.